Heading into Sunday's tilt with the Seattle Seahawks, the entire Pittsburgh Steelers defense was listed as questionable. It wasn't injury-related and there was no reason to believe the Steelers would feature backups at all 11 positions. But the team's performance in the opening-week beatdown at the hands of division rival Baltimore had everyone from NFL Network's Warren Sapp to the most diehard of Steelers fans questioning the defense that was first overall in points allowed last season.
Every facet of the Steelers defense was in doubt, from their pass rush to Dick LeBeau's patented 10-yard cushion on receivers. But the biggest question coming into the game was perhaps the most offensive to the Steelers defenders: Is the Steelers defense too old?
Sapp sure thinks so. After one game, one disaster of a game, Sapp wrote off the Steelers defense as "old, slow and done." Steelers fans called into talk radio stations and posted on message boards about such wide-ranging topics as "Aaron Smith is done" to "Dick LeBeau needs to retire."
But on this Sunday against a young Seattle Seahawks offense, Smith didn't look like he was "done," LeBeau's defensive scheme worked to perfection, and the Steelers defense looked anything but "old, slow and done." The result was a 24-0 win for Pittsburgh.
Need some proof? How about Troy Polamalu's ridiculous closing speed that was on display on his third-quarter sack of Seattle QB Tarvaris Jackson? Or maybe the first drive of the game for Seattle's offense? The Seahawks started with the ball on their own 1-yard line and proceeded to gain three yards on three ensuing plays and punted from their own end zone?
Perhaps the evidence comes from James Harrison's fourth-quarter sack when Jackson was scrambling on 4th and 8? Harrison flew in and tackled him one-handed. That might do something for the doubters.
The Steelers defense did a complete 180 from last week, allowing zero points and only 164 total yards from Seattle's offense. Consider that the Ravens had 170 yards rushing. Did the comments from Sapp and others play a part in that?
"We've been hearing that for the last five years," said inside linebacker Larry Foote, dismissing the comments. "That's nothing new to us. When the whistle blows, age is thrown out the window."
For the Steelers defense being slighted is nothing new, ask any Steelers fan and they'll likely tell you that the team's defense seems to play better when it is slighted and angry, which is quite frequently.
"We've been angry for a long time," said outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley. "We just didn't play with that anger last week."
The anger was back in full force this week as the Steelers sacked Jackson five times and allowed only 31 yards rushing. It was a defensive performance much more reminiscent of recent vintages. It was a cleansing performance, a purge of pent-up emotion and aggression that comes from losing to your division rival by four touchdowns.
"It was appropriate, given how we performed and played a week ago," coach Mike Tomlin said.
But the Steelers defense is downplaying Sunday's return to form because it understands that it isn't enough to put the talk of being too old to rest.
"We're going to take criticism all year," Woodley said. "Everybody is going to talk about that one game no matter how many games we win up until we play them again. So that's always going to be the talk for the rest of the year."
Perhaps last week's loss to Baltimore really was an anomaly, a perfect storm of being ill-prepared and playing an opponent that put everything into winning that one game. While Woodley expects the team's age to remain a topic of conversation until the Nov. 6 rematch with Baltimore at Heinz Field, that talk should ease up, at least for a week, after the team's stellar performance against Seattle.
Two weeks into the season is a bit too early to be drawing any conclusions about the Steelers defense, or any defense. But for this week anyway, the Steelers defense proved it could still dominate. Just don't tell the Steelers that. They seem to be cultivating the anger that grew out of this past week's criticism and realize they have a long way to go before the stench of Week 1's abysmal performance is finally wiped away.
"That stink will be with us for about halfway through the season," Foote said.
But that "stink" will likely be fueling the Steelers defense for much longer.